Sunday, 7 May 2017


Broken Records

Friday in Edmonton was hotter than Maui. The warmest May 5th on record topped off a productive week around the Crooked 9. Ann and I cleared the yard and flowerbeds of debris, 10 lawn bags filled, sir. The outdoor furniture came out of hibernation. I restained the back steps, touched up the wrought iron railings front and back. I repainted the patio tables. We even coped with the Costco garden centre. The reward for work well done was an evening trip to the Empress Ale House to catch up with close relatives, dear friends.

The Empress is on the low rent portion of Whyte Avenue, beyond the CPR tracks that bisect the strip. The extensive and fluid customer demographic is an NDP pollster’s dream, all are welcome. Sometimes there’s table service, most of the time you fetch your drinks yourself. The Empress does not have a kitchen so drinkers often bring their own food; the pizza joint next door does a great takeaway business. There’s a modest performance space and televisions you don’t notice until somebody decides to turn them on.

Our group was angling for the patio abutting the sidewalk. It’s a sheltered rectangle filled with sturdy tables and benches. People share space, it’s okay to sit with strangers. We ended up with a premium vantage point for the street life serenade. High up on the wall above the door the Hip were singing ‘Bobcaygeon’ in a black box. Vintage cars, waxed and polished, paraded along the avenue. Rice rocket Power Rangers gunned their engines. The Harley boys, wearing their tattoos and Nazi regalia, rumbled their choppers. Ordinary, average cars and trucks flew military staff car Edmonton Oilers hockey pennants from their doors and antennae. City buses pulled in and out of traffic. The heat and exhaust amplified the noise making conversation difficult and eavesdropping impossible.

Most of the pedestrians and many of the Empress patrons wore Oilers sweaters. The new, not quite vile, orange home colours were predominant over the glory days’ base blue and orange striping. Some fans sported the discarded midnight blue and red-accented copper laundry (still the team’s best look) and, God help them, a few insanely loyal sad sacks actually maneuvered themselves into the horrid and mercifully short-lived Reebok makeover pajama tops. Game five of the second playoff round against the Anaheim Ducks was scheduled for 8:30 pm Mountain.

When an Empress staffer erased the chalkboard by the entry and then wrote GAME ON! EMPRESS LAGER PINTS $4, I realized we were three hours into our session. The ambient noise from inside the pub changed, it echoed the ebb and flow of the hockey game. Outside people on the sidewalk, and drivers on the road, hard-wired and radioed, added choruses, cacophony. There’s a peculiar magic in the lower atmosphere when citizens come together over something other than sharing weather and catastrophe.

When Ann and I left the Empress the game was into the third period. Edmonton, playing in California, was up three to nothing. We’d each had one of those potentially lethal ‘Oh, let’s have one more’ pints. We caught a yellow cab on the wrong side of Whyte as the pedestrian warning lights counted down the orange seconds. Our ride along the trendy strip was curious, this was what an occupation might look like: pairs of police officers in day-glo vests patrolled the ends of every block, both sides. There were no cars; parking along Whyte had been banned because guess what tends to happen to vehicles (and shop windows) if Canadian hockey fans tumble out of bars to riot either happily or angrily. Ultimately and sensibly, the police service had made it very inconvenient for drunks to drive.

Once we got home there were chores to stagger through. The tabbies had to be treated with dry and wet food and the senior one, a grumpy old bastard, required his thyroid medicine. We prepared the coffee machine for Saturday morning’s CKUA radio shows, the newspapers and our New York Times crossword puzzle session. Ann gracefully excused herself to slip away to bed. I turned on the Oilers game. They were still leading, pitching a shutout with a little more than three minutes to go. The play was mostly in their end which was worrisome but they weren’t collapsing around their net in wildlife highway panic.

I thought, ‘No drama here,’ bedtime and three heavy lidded sentences from the book on my night table.  In the bedroom, Ann asked me if the game was over yet. I said, ‘No, there’s about three minutes to go and they’re up three to nothing. Anything can happen, but it’s unlikely. Good for them, a key game.’ Especially as they’d blown a two goal lead in game four at home and went on to crater in overtime.

Well. Didn’t the Ducks pull their goalie three times during the final three minutes and score three goals? Nothing of the sort has ever happened before in a century of professional hockey in North America. The Montreal Canadiens and Rocket Richard never did it; neither did Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins, or even Edmonton’s own Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky. In my experience as a sports fan and someone who is curious about the world, I’ve learned that all in all it’s better to make history in a positive way; Anaheim did that and I’m talking about a Disney franchise created to shill Emilio Estevez DVDs.

Nobody in town will dare say this, but Friday night’s loss was an epic choke. Titanic. Colossal. The Oilers have embarked on a new era after a decade in the doldrums. The team, rejuvenated by the addition of other-worldly captain Connor McDavid, now plays in a new downtown rink amid blocks of heavy urban renewal and redevelopment, all of which the organization insists be known as the Ice District, an unprecedented experiment in civic pride generated by the marriage of private and public interests. There’s a hell of a lot more than hockey riding on the shoulders of the Oilers these days. And so you hope Friday night will not become the defining moment of Edmonton’s new world order. Game six is on television now; there is always hope until there isn’t any.

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